Across the Universe: Jabberwocky and the Curious Cat

This column first ran in The Tablet in September, 2008

A correspondent in Britain has sent to me an article from the Times about Jonny Wilkinson, a famous rugby player, who has found the meaning of life in a combination of “esoteric science and Buddhism.” He is quoted saying, “I read about Schrödinger’s Cat and it had a huge effect on me... It was all about the idea that an observer can change the world just by looking at something; the idea that mind and reality are somehow interconnected. It is difficult to put into words, but it hit me like a steam train.”

I know little of rugby and nothing at all of Mr. Wilkinson. As for Buddhism and quantum physics, I did study both while doing philosophy as a young Jesuit: one semester of each. Mostly, I learned that one semester’s study was not nearly enough to qualify me as an expert on either.

But it was enough to convince me that the connection between the two is tenuous at best. For instance, consider Schrödinger’s Cat: a cat is in a box with a device that randomly may or may not kill the cat, but we don’t know if the cat is alive or not until we open the box and look. To conclude that our looking is what kills the cat, is certainly one way to interpret the result, I suppose...

An original illustration of the Jabberwocky, from Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there, drawn by John Tenniel. from

The Buddhism/physics connection has been a popular meme of journalists and pop science writers for more than thirty years. Martin Gardner, who wrote for many years in Scientific American, once compared the words of one such author to Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”: “As Alice remarked,” he said, “they seem to mean something, but it’s hard to pin down just what.” (Gardner was also the author of The Annotated Alice.)

I found reading philosophers during my Jesuit studies to be very, very difficult. At first blush their works also reminded me of Jabberwocky. With some patient teachers, however, I was able eventually to get a glimmer of the wisdom behind their verbiage. Unlike physicists, philosophers can’t fall back on equations to get their point across; and so often they write not to much to be understood, but rather to guarantee that they will not be misunderstood – that the only possible meaning one can extract from their words is in fact the meaning they intended. This does tend to result, however, in challenging sentence structures.

Truth in science does not necessarily lead to truth in theology. But at least it can help you recognize truth by showing you what truth tends to look like. In both my science and my religion, I am used to finding important truths poorly understood. My master’s thesis tried to describe the moons of Jupiter with computer models that I now know were fatally flawed; but the subsequent Voyagers to Jupiter found pretty much what I predicted there. Our theology of original sin has serious difficulties, but anyone who denies the reality of original sin hasn’t been reading the news lately. In both cases, we know ahead of time what the answer ought to look like; the role of the theorist, in science and theology, is to try to explain what we already are pretty sure is true. And we never get it entirely right.

Just because something is very hard to grasp, doesn’t mean it’s nonsense. But it also doesn’t mean it’s true. Before I commit to studying an advanced philosopher (or physicist) I need a certain faith that the effort will be worth the struggle. I can only have that faith by having teachers I trust. That’s why I spent so many years studying at MIT, rather than trying to pick up physics on my own out of a book. That’s why I belong to a Church.

Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

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Across the Universe: Jabberwocky and the Curious Cat — 1 Comment

  1. Thank you for posting this(again I see). It’s very timely to what I have been “mulling” over regarding Creation and Original Sin. Definitely worth re-posting as there are probably a lot of other people like me.
    I guess I need to consult my Pastor more, but I hate to bother him. Those guys are pretty busy from what I can see! But I trust him.
    I do seem to go in circles if I try to work this out on my own with the help of the “internet”/Books.

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